Wherever you go online, someone is tracking you. This is just how the internet works, especially in our modern data-driven society. There are many methods that are used to track people. Some of these methods are difficult to counter. Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do that will greatly improve your online anonymity and make you much more difficult to track.
In this article, we will look at some of the most common methods used to track internet users and what you can do about them.
There are many techniques that can be used to track users. Some of these are sophisticated and difficult to counter. Others are very simplistic, such as logging the IP addresses of any visitors to a webpage. Let’s take a look at some of the most common tracking methods.
Every user has a unique IP address that identifies them. By using IP addresses, websites can track what each user does on their site and what pages they visit. Your IP address can be used to determine your location and is the primary piece of data that will be used to track you.
Whenever you load a new web page, your browser sends a bunch of information to the website’s server. This information includes data about where you are coming from. If you visit fakenews.com and click a link to realnews.com, realnews.com will know that you have just come from fakenews.com thanks to the HTTP referrer.
If a webmaster wanted to surreptitiously track a user, they can use something called a web beacon, or a web bug. A web bug is a tiny object, occupying a single pixel on the screen. These web bugs are all but invisible and use the HTTP referrer to track users. They are also sometimes embedded in emails, which is why many email providers won’t load images in an email by default.
Cookies and Tracking Scripts
Cookies are very useful objects. When you sign in to a website and ask it to remember you next time you visit, the website does this by placing a cookie on your hard drive. Think of this as having your hand stamped when you enter a club so you can get back in again. The cookie serves as the stamp and lets the website know that you’re cool and supposed to be there. This is how websites remember that you had already logged in.
But there are different types of cookies and not all of them are so friendly, despite the name. Cookies, even legitimate ones, can be used to track users. In most cases, this tracking is used to establish your other browsing habits and therefore serve you adverts and content that will suit your tastes. Things get a bit murkier when third-party cookies come into play.
Many, if not most, websites use or allow third-party tracking scripts for their advertisements. If you visit two different websites that both happen to be part of the same advertising network, these websites will be able to track you and your history across both sites.
You might think that no one has a good reason to be tracking your mouse movements unless they want to snoop on you. In fact, mouse tracking is much more common than people realize and serves a perfectly legitimate function. Mouse movements distinguish humans from bots, which are a part of the modern internet landscape and, like many other components of the internet, have legitimate uses.
However, website owners and advertisers both want to know that the users who are interacting with a webpage are real people and not bots. Tracking mouse movements enables a website to identify real users, this gives them a list of IP addresses that they know connect to a real person rather than a bot.
How to Avoid Being Tracked
The unfortunate truth is that it is all but impossible to avoid being tracked. Even if you anonymize your internet connection and use an IP address that can’t be traced back to you, websites can still build a profile of you, it just won’t necessarily be linked to other profiles of you. The most sophisticated deanonymization methods, such as fingerprinting, can build and link profiles of users regardless of the measures they take.
However, there are a number of things you can do that will improve your privacy and security and make it much harder for anyone to track you online.
Delete Your Cookies
Cookies are convenient, but they are a security risk and they can be used to track your online activities. Using a cookie to keep you logged in to Facebook is like leaving your front door unlocked so you can save time putting your key in and unlocking the door. It saves time, is easier and more convenient, but it leaves you exposed in terms of your cybersecurity and privacy.
You can manually clear your cookies from your web browser, check your browser’s privacy and security settings and look for the option to clear or delete your cookies. You can also set your browser to automatically delete cookies or to not save them at all.
Don’t Log in to Social Media
The nature of social media, along with many other online services, means that websites need to be able to track users and tie accounts to individual people. If you want to maintain anonymity online, you need to avoid signing in to any service that can identify you. Signing up to any social media platform means giving up your online anonymity to some extent. If you must have social media accounts, you should log in to them and use them using a different browser to the one you use for your anonymous internet browsing. You should also check the available privacy settings that each platform offers, many will enable you to opt out of some of the tracking.
Hide Your IP Address
Using either a proxy or a VPN service will enable you to connect to the internet via another server. This intermediary server will interact with the website on your behalf and will keep your actual IP address hidden. Not only will this make it much more difficult to track you, but it also enables you to connect to a website from anywhere in the world. If you connect via a server in the UK, you will have a UK IP address.
Mask Your Browser Signature
You might not realize it, but all sorts of information about your browser is sent to any website you visit. This includes a user agent string, which tells the website what browser and operating system you are using. Sites use this information to track you.
There are a number of browser extensions available that enable the user to switch their user agent string on the fly. Changing your user agent string as you surf the internet will make it much more difficult to track you.
Mix Up Your Mouse Movements
As we mentioned earlier, websites often track their users’ mouse movements. Mix up your mouse movements and speed of actions to throw their detection off. Mouse tracking is becoming increasingly sophisticated, some people are even debating whether it can be used to detect the early onset of diseases like Parkinson’s.
If you go online, someone will try to track you. There’s nothing you can do about people trying to track you, but you can take steps to make it harder for them. If you follow all of the advice above, it will be difficult for anyone to build a profile of you. You can improve your general security and privacy by signing up for a proxy or VPN service.